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In Constitutional Law, the grant by statute of particular privileges to a class arbitrarily designated from a sizable number of persons, where no reasonable distinction exists between the favored and disfavored classes. Federal laws, supplemented by court decisions, prohibit discrimination in such areas as employment, housing, voting rights, education, and access to public facilities. They also proscribe discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, nationality, disability, or religion. In addition, state and local laws can prohibit discrimination in these areas and in others not covered by federal laws.

In the 1960s, in response to the Civil Rights Movement and an increasing awareness of discrimination against minorities, several pieces of landmark legislation were signed into law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.), the most comprehensive Civil Rights legislation in U.S. history, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, nationality, or color. Title VII was designed to provide for parity in the use and enjoyment of public accommodations, facilities, and education as well as in federally assisted programs and employment. It further allows an injured party to bring suit and obtain damages from any individual who illegally infringes upon the party's civil rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.) prohibits the states and their political subdivisions from imposing voting qualifications or prerequisites to voting or standards, practices, or procedures that deny or curtail the right of citizens to vote, because of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (42 U.S.C.A. § 3601 et seq.) prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, in connection with the sale or rental of residential housing. In 1988, Congress passed the Fair Housing Amendments Act, which extends the same protections to handicapped people.

Other important federal laws have been aimed at remedying discrimination against other groups, including older U.S. citizens and individuals with disabilities. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) (29 U.S.C.A. § 621 et seq.) prohibits employers with 20 or more employees from discriminating because of age against employees over age 40. Industries affecting commerce as well as state and local governments are covered by the ADEA. Disabled individuals received federal protection against discrimination with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C.A. § 701 et seq.), which prohibits any program activity receiving federal funds from denying access to a handicapped person. In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (codified in scattered sections of 42, 29, 47 U.S.C.A.). The ADA was widely hailed as the most significant piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provides even broader protection, prohibiting discrimination against disabled individuals, in employment, public accommodations, transportation, and Telecommunications.

Although discrimination on the basis of gender is included in title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a number of other federal laws also prohibit Sex Discrimination. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (29 U.S.C.A. § 206 [d]) amended the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 201–219). It prohibits discrimination through different forms of compensation for jobs with equal skill, effort, and responsibility. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e[k]) prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of pregnancy and childbirth, in employment and benefits. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C.A. §§ 1681–1686) prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds, including exclusions from noncontact team sports on the basis of sex. In addition, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 1691 et seq.) prohibits discrimination in the extension of credit, on the basis of sex or marital status.

State and local laws can also protect individuals from discrimination. For example, gays and lesbians, although not yet included under federal civil rights laws, are protected in many cities by local ordinances outlawing discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation. Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, and other states have passed such legislation—although some voters have sought to repeal it, with mixed results. Local antidiscrimination laws have been used to deny funding to groups that bar members because of their sexual orientation. This was the case after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Boys Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 120 S.Ct. 2446, 147 L.Ed.2d 554 (2000). The Court held that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), as a private organization, had the constitutional right to bar homosexual troop leaders and members from its ranks. The Boy Scouts hailed this as an important victory, but many corporations and local governments were angered by the decision.

Major corporate sponsors withdrew their support, and school districts and city councils reviewed their relationships with the BSA. The one million Boy Scouts are organized into 19,000 local troops. Many of the troops use public schools or community centers for their meetings. In light of the court decision, a number of cities around the United States either barred the Boy Scouts from using public space or required them to pay, citing antidiscrimination ordinances and policies. In at least 39 cities, the local United Way charitable organizations withdrew funding to the BSA, again citing antidiscrimination policies. The BSA estimated in 2002 that these decisions cut local troop income by 10 to 15 percent, totaling millions of dollars.

Further readings

Cokorinos, Lee. 2003. The Assault on Diversity: An Organized Challenge to Racial and Gender Justice. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Price, Joyce Howard. 2002. "Scouts Lose United Way Funds Over Gay Ban." Washington Times (March 15).

Richards, David A. J. 1999. Identity and the Case for Gay Rights: Race, Gender, Religion as Analogies. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.


Affirmative Action; Age Discrimination; Club; Colleges and Universities; Disability Discrimination; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Gay and Lesbian Rights; Women's Rights.


n. unequal treatment of persons, for a reason which has nothing to do with legal rights or ability. Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination in employment, availability of housing, rates of pay, right to promotion, educational opportunity, civil rights, and use of facilities based on race, nationality, creed, color, age, sex, or sexual orientation. The rights to protest discrimination or enforce one's rights to equal treatment are provided in various federal and state laws, which allow for private lawsuits with the right to damages. There are also federal and state commissions to investigate and enforce equal rights. (See: civil rights)


(Bigotry), noun bias, blind zeal, class prejudice, favoritism, illiberality, intolerance, preference, prejudice, race hatred, race prejudice, racialism, racism, unfairness, want of forbearance
Associated concepts: blacklist, civil rights act, compelling state interest, discrimination based on sex, discrimination in hiring and tenure, due process clause, equal protection, illegal discrimination, invidious discrimination, overwhelmmng state interest, prejudicial discrimination, race discrimiiation, rational basis, reasonable classification, unjust discrimination


(Differentiation), noun analysis, appraisal, appreciation, assessment, comprehension, contemplation, contrasting, demarcation, discrimen, disequalization, distinctio, distinction, distinguishment, estimation, examination, evaluation, individualization, segregation, separation, setting apart, weighing
Associated concepts: compelling state interest, equal prooection


(Good judgment), noun acumen, acuteness, circumspection, discernment, discreetness, good sense, insight, intellegentia, intelligence, iudicium, judiciousness, knowledge, perception, perspicacity, perspicuity, prudence, prudentia, rationality, reason, sagacity, shrewdness, sound reasoning, understanding
See also: alternative, caliber, choice, decorum, diagnosis, difference, discernment, discretion, distinction, expedience, favoritism, inequity, insight, intolerance, judgment, option, partiality, particularity, perception, preconception, prejudice, propriety, prudence, reason, sagacity, segregation, sensibility, severance


1 in the law of the UK, unfavourable treatment based on some disapproved ground. See SEX DISCRIMINATION, RACE DISCRIMINATION.
2 in the community law of the European Union (EU), one of the key principles enunciated under Article 7, whereby discrimination based upon the nationality of a worker within the EU is abolished. See also FREE MOVEMENT OF PERSONS.
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